December 20, 2004


In Iraq: One Religion, Two Realities: Sunni, Shiite Sermons Leave No Room for Dialogue on Election or Insurgents (Anthony Shadid, December 20, 2004, Washington Post)

Each week in Baghdad, sermons to the faithful offer a tale of two Fridays. Both sermons -- one Sunni, the other Shiite -- dwell on the issues that color Baghdad's weary life: the insurgency, elections planned for next month and the U.S. military presence. But the messages are so diametrically opposed as to speak to two realities and two futures for the country.

In Um al-Qura, built by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein as the Mother of All Battles Mosque, the insurgency is celebrated as an act of resistance against a faithless and deceitful American occupier. In no less strident rhetoric, at the venerated Baratha mosque, that same insurgency is condemned as wicked and senseless violence waged by loyalists of Hussein and foreigners. Elections are subjugation at the Sunni sermon, liberation at the Shiite one. And at each, the community's patience, the preachers insist, is wearing dangerously thin after yet another provocation or slight.

Since the fall of Hussein in April 2003, Iraqi communities have resisted the impulse to settle scores, some of which are based on grievances dating back decades, even centuries. But in the words that fill the halls of Baratha and Um al-Qura are signs of what some in Iraq fear may lie ahead. Across a divide between sects who split in a 7th-century dispute over leadership of the Muslim community, each sermon offers the same combustible mix. Sharing little, the sermons leave scant room for dialogue, even less for compromise. There is utter certainty, blessed by God and justified by faith.

And on any Friday in Baghdad, neither side seems to hear the other. [...]

Across town at the Baratha mosque, in a Shiite neighborhood, a similar market springs up every Friday outside the mosque's entrance, near barricades to deter car bombs. There are rows of other books -- on the life of Shiite saints or the teachings of the grand ayatollahs whose words carry the force of law among Shiites. Posters celebrate them, both the living (Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani) and the dead (Mohammed Bakir Hakim, killed in a car bomb in 2003, and Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, assassinated in 1999).

On the entrance to Baratha, said to have been built before the city of Baghdad and one of its most revered Shiite sites, a leaflet condemns attacks by insurgents in a restive region south of Baghdad, on the way to the sacred city of Najaf.

"The terrorists have failed!" it intoned.

"The killers of today are the same killers of yesterday," the prominent Shiite preacher, Jalaledin Saghir, declared Friday at the mosque, built of concrete and gray stone, its two minarets topped by green domes.

In a style almost conversational, Saghir was frank: The insurgency celebrated at Sunni mosques amounts to "terrorism," and the attacks are no more than a cover for men loyal to Hussein or followers of Wahhabism, a militant Sunni sect implacably hostile to Shiites. There was less ambiguity here, little symbolism.

The avowedly pious men behind it, he said in another sermon, wear "the beards of devils and the gowns of hypocrites."

With his own white turban and tunic and beard colored gray, Saghir is the clerical equivalent of a showman. He mixes humorous asides with stern admonitions, sarcasm with righteousness. He dismissed Arab foreign ministers as a'rab -- a term that suggests uncultured Bedouins. He ridiculed the insurgents for calling themselves mujaheddin -- sacred fighters. He belittled their tactics, casting the insurgency as little more than a futile attempt to block the ascendancy of the long-oppressed Shiite majority.

"Did they think they could fight the enemy's technology with their Kalashnikovs?" he asked.

In another sermon, the preacher ridiculed an insurgent attack on a mobile phone office in Baghdad. On this Friday, as with others, his ire was directed almost overwhelmingly at the militants, with few words leveled against U.S. forces.

"It seems that the mobile phone is an infidel device," he mocked. "Anyone who owns it is considered an infidel."

The criticism of the insurgency is a preamble to the real issue at hand for Iraq's Shiites: elections on Jan. 30, which will choose a 275-member parliament that will oversee the writing of a constitution. Banners along the mosque's entrance portray the vote as a decisive moment in the community's history. "Participating in elections is a religious, national and moral duty." Or, more directly: "The enemy of Iraqi is the enemy of democracy, justice and elections."

"Today we have a duty and tomorrow we have a duty -- urging the people and persuading them to participate in the election," Saghir told the worshipers, who spilled along a red carpet into the courtyard outside. "This is a duty!"

The sectarian lens can sometimes blur the nuances in Iraqi politics, and elections are no different. Unlike the mainstream clergy, the movement of Moqtada Sadr, a young, populist Shiite cleric, has remained ambivalent about the vote. Some Sunni groups such as the influential Iraqi Islamic Party have defied calls for a boycott by registering for the ballot. But along with the insurgency, elections represent perhaps the sharpest fault line through Iraq's sectarian landscape. In the broadest sense, the disdain for the election among politicized Sunnis is matched only by the enthusiasm among religious Shiites.

Since Sistani, the grand ayatollah, insisted that voting was a duty, the Shiite clergy have mobilized to carry out his edict. They have held lectures, organized meetings and, most powerfully, delivered the message in Friday sermons.

"We should go forward in the path of elections," Saghir insisted.

For Shiites, the elections are a way to inherit by peaceful means power that was long monopolized by Sunnism, who make up about a fifth of the country's population. For some Shiites, the elections will undo mistakes made when Iraq was founded. In 1920, the Shiite clergy led a revolt against the British occupation after World War I. Once it was put down, the clergy kept up their opposition, rejecting Shiite participation in elections that followed and discouraging a role in the government and its institutions, which were soon dominated by Sunnis.

Among Iraqi Shiites, this history remains resonant. The sermons at Baratha roam from the founding of Islam and the death of 7th-century Shiite martyrs to more modern oppression. On Friday, Saghir criticized charges by some politicians that Iraq's Shiites were unduly influenced by neighboring Iran, an overwhelmingly Shiite country. This was the language of Hussein, he said, and it mimicked the tired rhetoric he used in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. In the Shiite narrative, modern and ancient mingle, and the past shapes the present.

The Silent Majority: A roundup of the past two weeks' good news from Iraq. (ARTHUR CHRENKOFF, December 20, 2004, Wall Street Journal)
The newest member of the international democratic leaders club, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, recently had some words of encouragement and advice for the Iraqi people on their hard road to a better future: "They must go to polls. They must take this opportunity, elect their people to parliament, and have a government of their own, and have peace. . . . The major lesson in Afghanistan was that the Afghan people wanted change, from the tyranny of terrorism. The Iraqi people also will gain nothing if they allow these people to come from outside and destroy their lives."

We will know soon enough to what extent the Iraqis as a whole have listened to this advice, but as of six weeks before the vote, the indications are that the "silent majority" is keen for the election to mark a clean break from the past and a beginning of a new Iraq. It's not just in the political sphere that Iraqis, with the assistance of coalition forces, governments and organizations, are trying to make progress. In the economy, reconstruction, infrastructure, health and education, cultural life, and security, work continues every day, often under dangerous and difficult circumstances and just as often considered not newsworthy enough to compete with the insurgency and the growing pains of a country just starting to lift itself up after three decades under the boot of a bloodthirsty megalomaniac. Below are some of these stories of the past two weeks:

If the Sunni can't reconcile themselves to life in a democratic Shi'astan then they're the enemy and will need to be treated as such.

Religious Hostility Surfacing (Alissa J. Rubin, December 20, 2004, LA Times)

Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders alike downplay the role of sectarian or ethnic hatred in the country's bloody insurgency. But the gruesome killings illustrate how incidents that are often portrayed as reprisals against government supporters are sometimes motivated by sectarian animosities and understood by the victims and perpetrators as acts of religious vengeance.

In this respect the slaughter near the town of Latifiya is similar to scores of such incidents that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Iraqis, most of them Shiites but also some Kurds and now some Sunnis as well.

Whether these acts of violence will explode into civil warfare is an ominous question. The answer will probably be determined by people such as the elders of Abbasiyat. So far, religious leaders have stopped them from seeking retribution. But for the sheiks of the Dohan tribe and others like them, the impulse toward revenge may well prevail.

"We asked Sayyid Ali Sistani to give us permission to liberate Latifiya by ourselves and not wait for the government," said Sheik Dohan, using the honorific accorded to Sistani, the most senior religious leader of the country's Shiites. "But they would not let us do that."

No one wants to admit there is the making of a civil war in the bloodshed. If asked, most clergymen — Sunni and Shiite — and politicians will deny that the violence is imbued with sectarian or ethnic hatred. They will insist that to the extent there are killings, they are being carried out by non-Muslims or by a few people who in no way represent the population.

"If you look deep into our history, 7,000 years of history, we never, ever had a single incident of unrest built on ethnicity or sect or religion," said interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer on NBC's "Meet the Press" last month. The Sunni leader was apparently overlooking Saddam Hussein's bloody campaigns against the Kurds and Shiites.

But Western diplomats who have watched sectarian struggles elsewhere in the Arab world say they fear that the fight ultimately will be between a predominantly Sunni insurgency and Iraqi security forces made up mostly of Shiites and ethnic Kurds. The Shiites, after more than 30 years of repression by Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, probably will find it difficult to restrain themselves.

"The Sunnis will be under the boot of a Kurd and Shiite security force with a leavening of Sunnis," said a Western diplomat who has spent many years in the region. "In the end, the 20% of the population which is Sunni cannot fight off the other 80%, and the Shias will find it difficult to forget the history — how the Sunnis treated them when the Sunnis were in power."

The only real question is how much blood gets spilt before the Sunni accept the inevitable.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 20, 2004 8:05 AM
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